Mohajirs, Karachi, and Pakistani politics – part 2

31 Jul

Mohajir Quami Movement

In 1978, Altaf Hussain formed a student organization called the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organization (APMSO). The nascent student organization quickly leached students from Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami. In doing so, it sealed its future as an adversary of IJT. APMSO and IJT regularly clashed on the college campuses in the early 80s, and have continued to battle since then.

In 1984, the Mohajir Quami Mahaz (MQM) was set up by Altaf Hussain. Between 1984 and 1986, Hussain worked to recruit its cadre and then launched MQM on national stage with a massive rally in Karachi on August 8th, 1986.

Between 1986 and 1988, MQM worked towards a Sindhi-Muhajir alliance. In 1988, MQM fought national elections (under the name Haq-Parast) in an alliance with Sindhi dominated Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto. In the elections it emerged as the third largest party with 13 seats in the National Assembly. MQM also achieved a landslide victory in municipal elections (1987) in Karachi. MQM’s first stint in sharing power was largely ineffectual in delivering real tangible improvements as the governance was marred by both infighting within MQM as well as active sabotage by Bhutto’s PPP. MQM withdrew support from the Bhutto government and fought the next election in an alliance with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML). The Mohajir-Sindhi alliance provided the only real chance to thwart the Punjabi dominance in Pakistani politics, and PPP’s parochialism and MQM’s need to deliver to its constituents, led to an early demise to the alliance. MQM’s decision to ally with the Punjabis would soon prove to be unfortunate.

The coalition Islami Jamouri Ittehad (IJI or Islamic Democratic Front) rode to power in the 1990 elections. Between 1990 and 1992, MQM got a free reign under Jam Sadiq Ali. But with power came, dissent and party indiscipline. Aamir Khan, a comrade in arms with Altaf, began muscle flexing. In June 1992, the military concerned about MQM’s rising star launched Operation Cleanup to weed out Altaf Hussain. All of this was done with the express consent of Nawaz Sharif. While the Operation was officially to ‘weed out criminal’, it turned into an all out witch hunt against MQM. The military launched not only conducted raids but also led a media assault- it released photos ‘showing’ that MQM was a terrorist organization that ran torture chambers, and newspapers, fed by the military, ran expose’ pieces about its gun running operations. Disagreements between Altaf Hussain and the then MQM’s two prominent militant leaders, Afaq Ahmed and Aamir Khan had first surfaced towards the end of 1991. The military led campaign, sidled with a political campaign, helped create ‘mutiny’ within ranks and led to the formation of “Real MQM” or Haqiqi Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM-H) under Aamir Khan. Funnily, the progenitors of the splinter group were also killed by the avid embrace of its parents, the government. The group quickly lost credibility on the street and eventually just became a front group for the government to wage war against MQM.

Soon after the launch of the Operation, MQM withdrew support from the coalition. The same year, Altaf Hussain went to UK ostensibly for ‘medical treatment’ and converted the opportunity in to a voluntary exile. Since then he has led the organization via telephone, faxes, and other modern communication mechanisms. It is important here to note the central role of Altaf Hussain in leading MQM.

MQM is seen as a one man party which deeply relies on the charismatic leadership of Altaf Hussain. Hussain, who was born to lower middle-class background in Azizabad in Karachi, is known as Quaid (leader) and Pir Sahib within the ranks. MQM itself is a cadre based tightly knit organization. The organization prides itself on superb discipline within its ranks. The organization imposes a premium on its cadres for strict adherence to, what it sees, are essential tenets for building a strong organization. In its pamphlet on training workers, it lists four essential elements of a strong movement: “(1) “blind faith” (literal translation from Urdu) in the leadership; (2) elimination of individuality; (3) strong sense of common purpose; and (4) complete knowledge of, and agreement with the ideological basis of the organization.”

MQM boycotted the 1993 elections. The PPP government in 1994 gerrymandered the districts so as to bypass MQM’s ironclad grip on Karachi. 1994 onwards Karachi was under grip of violence as MQM(A) fought pitched battles with ISI supported MQM(H). In November 1994, the army was withdrawn from law enforcement duties in Sindh, but the paramilitary Rangers were reinforced and specially trained police inducted. During 1995 and 1996, hundreds of people were killed by Rangers and police, including hundreds of members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

In 1997, MQM(A) tried to moderate its stance in terms of ethnicity by changing its name Muthaida Quami Movement (United National Movement). Reflecting MQM’s nature (and need) for forming alliances of convenience, MQM again switched partners in 1998. The ruling PML(N)’s troubled alliance with the MQM(A) in Sindh province ruptured during October 1998. Without the MQM(A), the PML(N) no longer had the numbers to govern in the Sindh province, leaving a clear path for the opposition Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto to join with the MQM(A) to form a majority in the Sindh assembly. Within a year, Musharraf was at the helm of Pakistan as its CEO.

Transportation Riots

The Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Almost right away Pathan refugees started pouring into Karachi. Pathans, on coming to Karachi, largely went into the transportation, rental, and money-lending businesses. Up until 1979, the informal housing market in Karachi was controlled by Punjabis and Mohajirs. Starting 1980, Pathans started taking over the informal housing sector. This created tensions between Pathans and the predominantly Mohajir (Bihari) renters of Orangi. These tensions came to a boil in 1985 during the transportation riots.

Between 1984 and 1985, Karachi minibuses, called the ‘yellow devils’, were responsible for on average two deaths per day. In 1985, a Pathan bus driver skipped a light and ran into a group of students of Sir Syed College. The Mohajir and Punjabi student activists from the Islami Jamiat-e Tuleba, the student wing of the Jama’at-e Islami rioted. Bihari basti dwellers of Orangi also joined the transport riots. The rioting saw Mohajirs in pitched battles with Pathans, who formed a partnership with the Punjabis – an alliance cemented by arms trade between Punjabi dominated military and the Pathans. The alliance between Pathans and Punjabis still stands; Pathans are seen as henchmen for the Punjabis in Karachi.

Analysis

The Mohajir conflict is not an ethnic conflict as Mohajirs don’t belong to a certain ethnicity but come from a variety of different ethnicities. The uniting cultural glue, if there is one, is the shared language – Urdu. The major thing that bound them together, especially initially, was economic interest. Economic interest was also what led them to mouth nationalist slogans as a way to propagate the status quo that distinctly advantaged them. The other part of Mohajir identity – the one which made them see as a different nationality- was formed in the era post mid 1960s, when ethnic aspirations had started battering Pakistan’s political landscape with gale force winds. Mohajir ‘identity’ formed under the pressure of Sindhi nationalism, and the Punjabi and Pashtun ethnic movements, and most importantly under the economic pressures created by limited resources and ‘unequal’ distribution. Certainly Sindhis felt that they had legitimate grievances for they believed that it was ‘their land’ and ‘their resources’ that were being ‘preyed’ upon by outsiders. Meanwhile, the Punjabis felt threatened by the economic ascendancy and dominance of the Mohajirs within Pakistan. Additionally, post ethnic quotas, the only way Mohajirs could demand economic rights legitimately as a group was to be considered a separate nationality on par with that of Sindhis, Punjabis, Pathans, and Balochs. And Mohajirs did just that. Given that Mohajirs were ethnically, and to a large degree –especially post immigration of poor Biharis- economically diverse, mobilizing them as a “nationality” proved tricky. The earliest mobilization attempts hence were focused around the style of clothing. It is often called the ‘Kurta-Pyjama’ mobilization.

The trajectory of Karachi and Pakistan could have been different had it not involved itself in Afghanistan. The Islamization unleashed by Haq to service the Muhajideen pipeline had a deep impact on the political and cultural fabric of Pakistan – an impact whose ripple effects are still being echoed in the demolished minarets of Lal Masjid, and Shia-Sunni relations in particular. Zia regime, which came at a time when concern about Iranian revolution was high, armed the Sunni extremists within Pakistan and helped perpetrate horrific violence against the Shias in mid 1980s. Zia’s regime also saw vicious persecution of other minorities like the Ahmaddis. The Afghan war also made available huge amounts of small arms within the country, something which was abused to deadly effect in ethnic clashes.

The Future

In 1998, Mohajir, Baluch, Pashtun and Sindh parties allied to form the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM), which seeks to challenge Punjab hegemony in Pakistan’s political life. Another group that represents Mohajirs, Sindhis, and Baluchis is the Grand Democratic Alliance. While these alliances proved ineffectual, there is now likelihood that Mohajir-Sindhi-Pathan alliance may take shape with Benazir-Musharaf and possibly ANP coming together to fight elections.